One of the blessings of Academy Awards is that films that had completed their run will be re-released to take advantage of the Oscar publicity. This year 12 Years A Slave was brought back after it won best picture so more people could see it, and Dallas Buyer’s Club went from limited release to wide thanks to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s winning performances. One other film that made it into wider circulation, even though it was shut out on Oscar night, was Philomena.
The movie is based on “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” a book by Martin Sixsmith. Sixsmith had been a foreign correspondent for the BBC in both Russia and the United States before becoming Director of Communications for the Labour government of Tony Blair in the late 1990s. In 2002, he became embroiled in a scandal at the Ministry of Transportation when he sent an email to the Minister in charge, criticizing the department for releasing bad news in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to bury it under the larger story. The email was edited and leaked to embarrass the minister, and the government in response tried to “resign” Sixsmith. Eventually they would be forced to publically apologize to Sixsmith for their actions.
When the story begins, though, that apology is nowhere on the horizon. Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) isn’t quite sure what to do with himself in the wake of his forced resignation. At the same time he’s come to doubt his religion, so there’s no solace for him there. When asked what he’ll do, he responds that he’s considering doing a book on Russia (the real Sixsmith wrote several on that country), but an editor he meets at a dinner party suggests he do a human interest story instead. Sixsmith isn’t enthusiastic as he finds them mawkish. Then Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who’s working as a server at the party, approaches him with a story that she’s just recently heard from her mother Philomena (Judi Dench).
When she was a teenager in Ireland, Philomena (played in flashback by Sophie Kennedy Clark) had gotten pregnant by a lad she met at a carnival. When he learned a baby was on the way, her father basically gave her to the Church so they could deal with it. Girls in that condition became indentured servants to the nuns for four years to pay for their child’s delivery, often working in commercial laundries at the abbey that provided income for the sisterhood. Philomena went to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, and endured a breech birth, during which one of the nuns piously says it’s her punishment for her sins. While working for the sisters, she was allowed to see her son, whom she named Anthony, for an hour a week. But one of the conditions imposed on the girls was they had to sign away their parental rights. When Anthony was about two he was adopted, and Philomena never saw him again. All she had left was a picture of him. Philomena became a nurse after she left the abbey and had another family, but she always wondered what happened to Anthony. When Jane comes upon her mother looking at the picture on Anthony’s 50th birthday, Philomena tells her the story of her lost half-brother.
Sixsmith meets Philomena, whose guileless graciousness begins to win him over. They travel to Roscrea to meet with the sisters now in charge of Sean Ross Abbey. Philomena had contacted them several times before, trying to find Anthony, but the sisters explain the adoption records for the Abbey were lost in a fire. Sixsmith finds there’s more to that story, and a lead sends them off in an unexpected direction.
Coogan not only stars in the movie but is one of its producers and did the screenplay adaptation along with Jeff Pope. The story takes several unexpected and heartbreaking turns – it’s recommended that you have Kleenex handy while watching it – but these are handled beautifully, without telegraphing what is to come or playing for cheap sentiment. (The movie has been criticized for some scenes that didn’t follow the actual events, though the scenes in question help provide the viewer with an emotional resolution to the story.)
Philomena was directed by Stephen Frears, who dealt with creating a story around a historic event in The Queen. Frears is excellent at letting the camera tell the story and capturing small details that speak volumes. He’s also an actor’s director who assists the performers in pulling off their performances. Of course, when your main actor is Judi Dench, you’re already assured of a consummate performance. Dench uses the softest brogue with Philomena, giving her speech the subtlest taste of Ireland. The relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith is a complicated one, and Dench and Coogan make it compelling.
But while on the surface the story is about the search for a lost child, the deeper message is one of grace triumphing over legalism. Despite being sorely used by the sisters in Roscrea, Philomena remains a devout Catholic, though hers is not the paternalistic, judgmental religion of the nuns who tormented her, but rather the grace-filled mercy of a compassionate savior. In the end her faith puts Sixsmith’s agnosticism to shame.
If you missed seeing Philomena in the theaters, I recommend that you buy or rent this stunning film. It is a story that will remain with you long after the credits have rolled.